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The 988 mental health hotline is coming, and N.H. is preparing

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On Wednesday evening, health officials held a public Q & A about the New Hampshire rollout of the country’s new 988 crisis hotline.

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Starting in July 2022, people will reach the national suicide prevention hotline, currently 1-800 273-8255, by dialing the three digit number 9-8-8.

The line is for people who are experiencing a mental health crisis, or as Jennifer Sabin, the suicide prevention coordinator at the New Hampshire Department for Health and Human Services put it, “when life seems like too much for you or for someone that you know to manage.”

New Hampshire plans to expand several programs in tandem with the new hotline.

By the start of 2022, all 10 community mental health centers are expected to have their own mobile crisis units, which can be deployed when needed by the teams answering 988 calls.

It’s part of the state’s effort to shift mental health crisis care away from emergency rooms and law enforcement, towards behavioral health services. The state continues to see a bottleneck for psychiatric treatment beds in emergency rooms, with 18 children and 20 adults waiting for a bed as of Oct. 21.

At the end of last month, the state announced a contract with Beacon Health Options, a private, behavioral health provider based in Boston, which will take the 988 calls from New Hampshire.

DHHS expects that the vast majority of calls will not require a mobile crisis unit or a transfer to 911, but can be resolved with a conversation and follow up plan. Wendy Martinez Farmer, a crisis expert and director with Beacon Health Options, says that plan could include the call taker scheduling an appointment for the caller at a local mental health center for the following day.

Right now, calls to the current 10 digit line in New Hampshire are mostly being answered by the Lebanon-based organization Headrest.

Sabin expects call volume to increase when the three digit number is available. The new system will have a soft launch in January, before the July switch.

Currently, there’s no New Hampshire-based text or chat crisis service, but that will change too, a shift Sabin hopes will help the state reach younger residents more directly. The national service that currently receives texts and chats from 603 area codes says the biggest volume comes from 14 to 17-year-old girls.

The state anticipates 33,000 contacts in the first year, once 988 is live, a number that includes incoming calls, chats and texts as well as outgoing follow up calls.

One of the sticking points at Wednesday's webinar was concern about how New Hampshire’s shortage of behavioral health workers may impact the 988 rollout, which plans to integrate the hotline with mobile crisis and local mental health services.

“I'm not sure we have a specific way to answer that really, really tough question,” Sabin said at the session.

Sabin did say there is funding for new staff positions.

Martinez Farmer of Beacon Health Options said the state can tap into a national call center, with more resources and staff, and have a smaller team working locally in New Hampshire.

As the preparation for the 988 launch continues, DHHS plans to hold more information sessions focused on specific communities that could face barriers to using the 988 hotline. Those groups include deaf or hard of hearing residents, refugees and immigrants, and residents of the North Country.

If you or someone you know might be at risk for suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 800 273 8255 or the crisis text line by texting HOME to 741741.

Editors Note: A pervious version of this story identified Beacon Health Options incorrectly as a non-profit.